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After an Epic Fail, the City Relaunches Residential Composting

Announcing a Sanitation Department compost recycling inititative,Mayor Adams tries out trash collection with a worker in Flushing Meadow Park. Photo: Mayor’s Office

It's "rats to riches" — or so the city wants us to believe.

Six months after Mayor Adams cut $91 million from the city's small, voluntary, pilot composting program, the Sanitation Department is relaunching the effort by adding universal curbside compost pickup in one borough: Queens.

This time, Sanitation hopes that the program, which Adams previously criticized as too expensive and ineffective, will take hold because it has supposedly been made easier: Instead of having buildings sign up for the service, all they must do is to put out their organic waste in separate bags or bins, which the city will pick up weekly, starting Oct. 3. The city will deliver organic waste bins to all Queens buildings of 10 apartments or more in the coming weeks; smaller buildings can request bins, which the city will deliver gratis.

"When we suspended the composting program, I said that we're going to bring it back, but we're going to bring it in a more equitable and a more cost-efficient way," Adams said at a press conference Monday in Flushing Meadow Park.

It's a hope against hope. As officials noted at the presser, New Yorkers produce 24 million pounds of trash and recycling daily, or about three pounds per person, about a third of which is organic waste that produces planet-warming methane as it decomposes in landfills. But it's an understatement to say that the city's organic-waste recycling stinks, lagging other cities' around the world, as does its residential and commercial trash pick-up.

Mayor Bloomberg first piloted organics collection in 2013, announcing that the city would "recycle everything." But the program foundered under Mayor de Blasio, who touted a goal of diverting 90 percent of the city's waste from landfills by 2030. A voluntary program, it featured curbside pick-up for buildings that opted to have it and bins at which residents could drop off compost at parks and other locations. But it had scant success — only 1/10 of those in the few neighborhoods with curbside pick-up used it — and long faced criticism that it appealed only to the city's best-heeled residents, even that it "ignored working class communities of color" and "made it easy for landlords to prevent tenants from participating," as Council Sanitation Chairwoman Sandy Nurse wrote in Streetsblog.

A selection of Sanitation compost bins featured at the announcement. Photo: Mayor's Office
A selection of Sanitation compost bins featured at the announcement. Photo: Mayor's Office
Mayor Adams stood next to a selection of Sanitation compost bins at the recent announcement that universal composting pickup will start in Queens. Photo: Mayor's Office

The Department of Sanitation is up against a wall. A City Council bill, introduced by Nurse and her Brooklyn colleague Shahana Hanif, to mandate citywide curbside organics collection by next year is gaining steam.

"With Speaker Adams, Majority Leader Keith Powers and Councilmembers Hanif and Nurse leading the way, the time for enactment of this sensible, popular and far-sighted waste reform bill seems finally to have arrived!" crowed Eric Goldstein of the National Resources Defense Council.

So how is this troubled effort now supposed to gain traction?

Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch said that the present iteration is "the single largest rollout ever [and] the most equitable organics program ever rolled out in New York City." Thus, it will be "way more cost effective than previous programs" with costs "less than half the cost of previous programs" because of "some extreme routing, fleet and workforce efficiencies." The program will cost $320,000 per community board in Fiscal Year 2024, versus the old program's $860,000 per community board, or less than half the cost, with $2 million in "new needs," or $1 per each of 2 million Queens residents, according to DSNY.

The city will also expand its "smart" bins this fall to 250 locations in all five boroughs, up from 25. The DSNY said it would emphasize "areas in Manhattan above 125 Street, the South Bronx, the North Shore of Staten Island, and Central Brooklyn."

Queens alone produces 41 percent of the city's yard waste, so it makes sense that the city is re-launching composting there. But the program will run for three months and then cease over the winter, when yard waste reduces to a trickle. The city said curbside pickups would return in full force in the spring.

The new service, Tisch said, is "stress-free."

"For organics to work, it needs to penetrate beyond the 'true believers,'" she added. "And for that to happen. It needs to be simple to use. So here's what we got: no signups or expressions of interest or other hoops to jump through. Our trucks will roll to every address in Queens once a week. Period."

Clare Miflin, the founder of the Center for Zero Waste Design, said that "starting with yard waste makes a lot of sense," noting that waste experts Samantha MacBride and Peter McKeon put forward that argument in a recent article, "Let’s Restart NYC Curbside Organics Collection With Yard Trimmings." Doing so, however, "will be an issue for buildings where residents get used to dropping food scraps in a bin in a building and then suddenly it isn’t getting picked up any more."

Miflin had questions, moreover, about once-a week pickup and the "use any bin" strategy.

"The reason that the brown bins are so small is that food waste is heavy and needs to be lifted by hand as trucks don’t have lifting mechanisms," she said. "Larger bins or bags could definitely be used for lightweight leaves and yard waste, so maybe that is the idea here, and I hope they will add more guidance on what is allowed in terms of weight of bins." And, "with only once a week pick-up, after a warm week like this one, food scraps in a brown bin can get pretty smelly."

Hanif, for one, was bullish that the pilot would lead to bigger things. "This expansion is paving the way for universal residential composting!" she tweeted. "Scaling up the city's composting program in Queens will pave the way for a brown bin in every home."

Nurse said in a statement: "I look forward to the findings of the pilot and am thankful to the leadership of Commissioner Tisch in finding cost effective and quickly implementable solutions for achieving citywide curbside composting.”

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